Marshmallow Test Experiment: the Importance of Self Control

During the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Stanford, conducted a series of experiments to find the critical trait essential for success.

He and his team tested hundreds of preschool children aged between 4 and 5. They identified that self-control and the ability to delay gratification are crucial for academic, health, work, and economic outcomes.

Picture with lot of marshmallows.
Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

In 2018 different scientists replicated the marshmallow test experiment with more children. They found almost no correlation between early age self-control and later age life outcomes than the original experiment, especially if they controlled socio-economic factors.

In this article, you will learn about the details of the original and replicated marshmallow test experiment and related research about the importance of self-control.

Short Summary

The marshmallow test is a psychological science experiment that measures children's ability to self-control and delay gratification.

The scientists gave each child a single marshmallow and offered two options. The child could eat the marshmallow immediately or wait some time without eating it to receive a second marshmallow.

The original experiment measured how long the children could wait before eating the marshmallow under different conditions, such as providing them with toys to remove their attention from the marshmallow.

Follow-up studies using the original data found that children who could resist the temptation of eating the first marshmallow in order to receive the second one had better outcomes later in their life.

Later studies replicated the marshmallow experiment with more children. They found a much weaker correlation between delayed gratification and life outcomes if they chose kids from similar family backgrounds than the original study.

The Original Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In the 1960s, Stanford Psychologist Walter Mischel and his team designed three experiments to measure how different circumstances impact children's ability to delay gratification. The Stanford marshmallow experiment is one of the most famous studies in developmental psychology.

The original experiment didn't investigate the correlation between the ability to delay gratification and life measures.

The scientists chose several children from the Bing Nursery School, a research nursery for Stanford University. The children were between 3.5 and 5.5 years old. The experiment instructors spent two days with the children in the nursery before the experiment to build trust.

Experiment One

Fifty children were assigned to five different groups. Each group had different conditions while they waited for the delayed reward:

The results showed that children who knew about the possibility of receiving a second marshmallow waited longer than the ones who didn't know that.

Chart showing the results of the marshmallow test experiment 1.
Average waiting time for each group in experiment 1.

Groups with a toy or something fun to think of could also wait more than those with nothing to do but think about eating the marshmallow.

Surprisingly the instruction to think about something fun helped to increase children's ability to wait longer than an actual toy to play with.

Experiment Two

Similar to the first experiment. The main difference is that all children knew they had to wait for a second marshmallow. Thirty-two children were assigned to three different groups:

Results showed that the group thinking about fun things could wait longer.

Chart showing the results of the marshmallow test experiment 2.
Average waiting time for each group in experiment 2.

The group thinking about sad things couldn't wait significantly longer than the group who had to think about eating the marshmallow.

Experiment Three

Compared to the previous experiments, the difference was that children were presented with their favorite and less favorite treats. They could take their less favorite immediately or wait some time to receive their favorite treat. The treats were not in the children's sight during the delay period.

The researchers divided sixteen children into three groups:

The results showed that the group thinking about the treats couldn't wait too long for their favorite treat.

Chart showing the results of the marshmallow test experiment 3.
Average waiting time for each group in experiment 3.

However, the group who didn't have to think about anything could perform almost as well as the group who had to think about something fun.

Conclusion of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

The studies confirmed that children's ability to delay gratification highly depended on their knowledge of the possible outcomes, having something else to do while waiting, or not seeing the treats.

Criticism of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Criticism of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment revolves around its limited scope and potential biases. One primary concern is the lack of consideration for family background. The study did not adequately account for the socio-economic differences and upbringing variations that might have influenced children's ability to delay gratification.

Moreover, critics argue that the experiment overlooked early cognitive abilities, which can significantly impact decision-making processes. Children with higher early cognitive ability might have better understood the consequences of delaying gratification, skewing the results.

Additionally, the focus on cognitive control as the primary factor for self-control neglects the role of emotional and social factors, which play a crucial role in shaping behavior. These criticisms highlight the need for a more comprehensive understanding of self-control and its multifaceted influences.

Long-term Studies Using Marshmallow Test Data

During various studies about delayed gratification, over 600 children from Bing Nursery School participated in the tests around 1970.

Researchers conducted many studies using this data to find a connection between childhood behavior and important life outcomes.

Delayed Gratification And SAT Scores

Twenty years later, Walter Mischel, the author of the original marshmallow test experiment, and his students sent a questionnaire to the parents of the children who participated in the tests and asked them about their child's SAT scores.

The study found that children's ability to delay gratification longer at an early age correlates with higher SAT scores.

Delayed Gratification And Self-Regulation

In a 2000 study, researchers from Columbia University examined how the original nursery students' self-control abilities related to later self-worth, stress resistance, and other positive functioning traits.

They found that children who could delay gratification longer as adults showed higher self-esteem, self-worth, and stress resistance.

Delayed Gratification And Body Mass Index

In a 2013 study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin examined the connection between delayed gratification and Body Mass Index.

They found that self-control ability in childhood strongly correlates with lower BMI as an adult.

Marshmallow Test Replication

In 2018, researchers from New York University and the University of California decided to replicate the extended studies on the original marshmallow test data.

The new study considered the mother's education level, the mother's age at the child's birth, the mother's intelligence, family background, and race.

The new study found a weaker connection between the children's ability to delay gratification and their later academic and behavioral performance than the original marshmallow test suggested.

However, the statistical connection disappeared if the data was controlled by family income or cognitive abilities.

Lessons From the Marshmallow Test

The marshmallow test is famous for demonstrating the significance of self-control. However, it also offers valuable lessons about how individuals can enhance their self-control abilities.

In particular, a study on the Stanford marshmallow experiment highlights various factors that impacted the children's ability to exercise self-control during the experiment.

When children were asked to play with a toy, they could stretch their ability to delay gratification.

Children who were told to think about "fun things" could wait significantly longer than those who had to think about "sad things."

Children who were asked to think about the marshmallow while waiting struggled to resist eating it.

The most exciting aspect of the experiment is the correlation between self-control and life and economic outcomes, pointed out by many follow-up studies.

Learning the Ability to Delay Gratification

Mastering self-control is essential in cultivating the ability to delay gratification, a skill linked to greater success and well-being. Delayed rewards often offer more significant long-term benefits, but resisting immediate temptations can be challenging.

To improve this aspect of self-control:

You can strengthen your self-control muscles with consistent effort and patience, paving the way for achieving your goals and enjoying lasting rewards.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Marshmallow Test?

The marshmallow test was a study on self-control and delayed gratification. In this experiment, the researchers placed one marshmallow in front of a child and told them they would receive a second marshmallow if they waited some time.

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who could wait to receive two marshmallows had better life outcomes measured by education, wealth, and other life measures.

What Does the Marshmallow Test Prove?

The marshmallow test proves that children can practice self-control more efficiently if their attention is distracted with positive experiences, like playing with toys or thinking about fun things.

Follow-up studies proved that children who can resist temptation longer usually have better results in important life outcomes.

What Is Self-control?

Self-control is the ability to control one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to achieve specific outcomes. It involves resisting impulsive urges and making deliberate choices that align with long-term goals.

Self-control is crucial for personal and academic success as it allows individuals to overcome immediate gratification and make disciplined decisions that lead to greater but delayed rewards in the future.

How to Improve Self-control?

Improving self-control involves several strategies:

Remember that mastering self-control takes time and patience; be kind to yourself during the process.

How Does the Marshmallow Test Measure Self-control in Children?

The marshmallow test measures self-control in children by assessing their ability to delay gratification. It involves offering a child a marshmallow and telling them they will receive an additional one if they can resist eating it for some time. The test evaluates a child's ability to resist immediate temptation, showcasing their self-control and capacity for delayed gratification.

What Is Delayed Gratification?

Delayed gratification is the process of resisting the temptation of an immediate reward with the desire to get a more valuable reward in the future. The ability to delay gratification relates to self-control, patience, and impulse control.